Chocolate is produced from the beans of the cacao tree. It has been cultivated for at least three thousand years and is one of the most popular and indulgent sweets in Europe and the USA. Statistics show that the average person in Britain consumes 9.5 kilos of chocolate every year.
Chocolate has always been considered an ‘unhealthy’ food. However, with its huge popularity, I am often asked if chocolate is ok to eat. With Easter around the corner, I thought it was a good time to shed some light on this simple, yet complex question.
The core ingredient in chocolate, cacao, is particularly rich in plant sterols and polyphenols. It contains more polyphenols than other foods, making it a good source of antioxidants, which are very beneficial for health and immunity.
Chocolate also contains, magnesium, iron, potassium, copper and zinc. Dark chocolate has even more of these minerals and considerably higher levels of polyphenols, making it a much richer source of antioxidants.
Dark chocolate is also generally lower in added sugar compared to milk chocolate. Additionally, it tends to be void of energy-dense fillings, which further increases its sugar content. Individuals with a history of kidney stones should, however, avoid the consumption of dark chocolate.
By way of contrast, commercially-bought drinking chocolate contains very low levels of polyphenols and does not confer any health benefits for this reason. It’s also worth noting that ‘white chocolate’ is not actually chocolate at all, since it does not contain any cacao solids.
Chocolate is also a source of caffeine, which while small in quantity, is accumulative to other caffeine consumed by most people in the course of their day. The higher the percentage of cacao solids, the greater the caffeine content, giving dark chocolate significantly higher caffeine levels than milk chocolate. As caffeine is a stimulant and not beneficial to good health, this should be taken into consideration.
Cacao, often referred to as ‘cocoa butter’, is a combination of healthy fats and unhealthy saturated fats, with one part of the healthy fats being the same chemical compound present in olive oil, which has well documented health benefits.
Saturated fats, on the other hand, are associated with high total cholesterol, as well as increased unhealthy cholesterol and coronary heart disease. However, as cacao is high in flavonoids from polyphenols, these protect the cardiovascular system by reducing cholesterol and inflammation, and preventing blood clots.
While studies have shown short-term beneficial effects, more research is needed before we know whether cacao can actually prevent coronary heart disease on a long-term basis.
From a practical perspective, large quantities of chocolate would need to be consumed regularly for this benefit, which in turn dramatically increases sugar consumption, making it counter-productive to overall good health.
Both dark and milk chocolate is very calorific. Regular consumption can not only cause detrimental metabolic consequences, but also weight gain. Additionally, most mass produced chocolate has numerous added sugar and calorific ingredients, further exacerbating this problem.
Generally the consumption of chocolate is viewed as a pleasurable experience. Chocolate contains active substances that can act upon brain receptors, which can create a feeling of good mood, reduced anxiety and calmness. Not surprisingly, many individuals often use it as a mood enhancer and a self-help remedy. Similarly, a person’s mood might be improved due to satisfying a craving.
It’s not advisable to use chocolate to improve a depressed mood, as any positive effects are only short term.
One lesser known fact is the adverse impact chocolate can have on bone density, especially in older women. Studies have linked the daily consumption of chocolate by older women to reduced bone density and strength, while also increasing the risk of fractures and osteoporosis. These effects are in part due what chocolate is comprised of, which have the ability to both inhibit the absorption of calcium and to also promote its secretion.
Additives and toxins
Even in the plainest chocolate bars, it is increasingly popular to incorporate additives, such as emulsifiers, to help bind the ingredients and keep production costs down. One such emulsifier is Soya Lecithin, which is normally derived from genetically modified (GM) soya. To avoid consuming chocolate with GM ingredients, always buy organic-certified chocolate, as GM ingredients are not permitted in organic farming.
Another concern is how growers try to protect the cacao crop from being attacked by a variety of pests, including insects, rodents and fungal diseases. Where cultivation takes place in countries not governed by EU farming regulations, crops can be excessively sprayed with toxic pesticides, which are not only harmful to humans but also to the environment.
Western Africa is one of the largest growers of cacao, in particular the Ivory Coast and Ghana, which supply around 70% of the world’s cacao to many of the largest confectionary companies in the world.
The region includes areas of extreme poverty, where children are regularly exploited by the cocoa farming industry.
According to a 2020 report from the US Department of Labour, 1.56 million children are working on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, and 43% of these children are involved in hazardous activities, such as climbing cocoa trees to cut bean pods using a machete.
Despite supply chains pledging to reduce this problem by 70% by 2020, it is feared that the level of child labour in some areas of cocoa production is now higher than 2010. At the same time, the production of cocoa has increased by over 60%.
There are reports of children being lured into child labour with false promises of good money, while others are sold by their poverty-stricken families to traders unaware of the appalling labour conditions their children will face. One of the most disturbing aspects are the reports of children being trafficked for work.
By whichever route they arrive onto cocoa farms, these young workers are often not paid any salary at all and suffer horrific experiences. They are physically abused if they refuse to work or work too slowly, and are often expected to carry out the most hazardous jobs in the cultivation of cocoa. This exploitation can start for children as young as five and continue until adulthood.
It’s enough to put you off chocolate for good – or at least until the industry takes serious action to curb this horrific and ethically unacceptable problem.
There are many health and ethical considerations when consuming chocolate. From a health perspective, chocolate offers many advantages and disadvantages, in particular with it being such a rich source of polyphenols and antioxidants, which are so beneficial to good health.
However, given chocolate’s high calorific content coupled with its excessive added sugars and fats, which help promote sales and create product diversity, these nullify the beneficial effects of chocolate. As such and budget-permitting, it’s best we consume good quality organic, fair trade chocolate and this is best enjoyed in moderation.
Healthier ways to enjoy chocolate
~ Choose dark chocolate where possible.
~ Avoid chocolate with added hydrogenated fats.
~ Try to consume chocolate that is as naturally produced as possible, without added sugars, such as caramel, toffee, sugary biscuits etc.…
~ Over the Easter weekend, save some Easter chocolate eggs for other times, they do not all have to be eaten all at once.
~ Be aware of size and choose smaller eggs or smaller bars of chocolate.
~ Be aware of caffeine intake when eating chocolate if you also consume tea and coffees.
~ To ensure workers across the supply chain are paid and treated correctly and that child exploitation is eradicated, try to source chocolate from brands such as Fair Trade.
~ To reduce pesticide consumption, choose organic chocolate where possible.
Wishing everybody the best of health.
Özlem Aytaç S.A.C Dip (s), M.F.N.T.P, M.N.N.A., is a nutritionist & lifestyle medicine practitioner.
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The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be deemed medical advice. None of the information provided here, directly or indirectly, constitutes the practice of medicine, the dispensing of medical services, a professional diagnosis or a treatment plan. The information here should not be considered complete nor should it be relied on to suggest a course of therapy for a particular individual.